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Sen. Robert F. Kennedy speaks to reporters in New York, March 1, 1968, weeks before he told a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy speaks to reporters in New York, March 1, 1968, weeks before he told a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. Fox Photos/Getty Images
It was supposed to be a routine campaign stop. In a poor section of Indianapolis, 40 years ago Friday, a largely black crowd had waited an hour to hear the presidential candidate speak. The candidate, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, had been warned not to go by the city's police chief.
As his car entered the neighborhood, his police escort left him. Once there, he stood in the back of a flatbed truck. He turned to an aide and asked, "Do they know about Martin Luther King?"
They didn't, and it was left to Kennedy to tell them that King had been shot and killed that night in Memphis, Tenn. The crowd gasped in horror.
Kennedy spoke of King's dedication to "love and to justice between fellow human beings," adding that "he died in the cause of that effort."
And Kennedy sought to heal the racial wounds that were certain to follow by referring to the death of his own brother, President John F. Kennedy.
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to ... be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling," he said. "I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man."
Many other American cities burned after King was killed. But there was no fire in Indianapolis, which heard the words of Robert Kennedy.
A historian says a well-organized black community kept its calm. It's hard to overlook the image of one single man, standing on a flatbed truck, who never looked down at the paper in his hand — only at the faces in the crowd.
"My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus," Robert Kennedy said, "and he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
Two months later, Robert Kennedy himself was felled by an assassin's bullet.